Gone, but Still Alive
The Stamford Advocate, February 19, 2006
By Vesna Jaksic
Their 20th wedding anniversary had just passed, but S. Christine Baker was introducing herself to her husband.
“Hey darling,” she said at his bedside. “Hey, this is Chris, your wife.”
Her husband was lying with his eyes closed, only occasionally moving his head. Baker placed a paper napkin under his chin, took a plastic spoon and fed him vanilla ice cream, his favorite treat.
“Hey darling, this is me, the ice cream lady,” she said, touching his hair and kissing his forehead. “Hey, it’s Chris. Sorry to wake you up, but I want to see you. I love you, sweetheart.”
He still showed no reaction, though his eyes sometimes opened slightly.
“He’s got a sweet smile in his eyes,” Baker said. “It could mean that he’s reacting a little bit. Sometimes he looks at me as if he really knows me.”
Her husband, Harrison Welton, 80, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 12 years ago.
Baker, 76, visited Welton at Courtland Gardens Health Center in Stamford on a recent Wednesday afternoon, as she has been doing for months. At one time, she came every day; then it turned to three times a week, and finally, once a week.
“I came a lot more often when he knew who I was,” she said.
A nine-year honeymoon
When Baker and Welton wed in 1985, it was the second marriage for both. She had divorced her late first husband, who paid more attention to liquor than her in their final years of marriage, she said. Welton’s first wife had died of cancer.
The couple met at First Presbyterian Church in Stamford.
“I remember him making me laugh until I was sitting on the floor laughing with tears coming down my face,” she said of their marriage. “I don’t know, I think we were both just happy to be with each other. We had silly fun.”
They visited her relatives in England and danced in a disco in Italy. He took her on a gondola ride in Venice, to a cathedral in Barcelona and a flamenco show in Majorca. She comforted him when he cried while visiting a D-Day cemetery in France and he cheered her up by buying her pearl earrings in Spain.
Welton had served as a machinist on the USS Enterprise CV-6 aircraft carrier in the South Pacific and was a founding member of the USS Enterprise Association. So each year, they took their 40-foot RV to places such as Colorado, Indiana and Ohio, where the Enterprise Association held its meetings.
But nine years after they got married, things began to change. Welton started doing strange things, such as once pouring salad dressing on his spaghetti. Driving became a challenge and he once accidentally side-swiped his neighbor’s truck.
Welton was one of an estimated 4.5 million Americans whose brain cells were being destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. In Connecticut, about 100,000 people have the incurable disease. But it takes its toll on many more husbands, wives, sisters, brothers and other caregivers.
“I’m coping, I’m trying to make my life something, which is very hard,” Baker said in November. “I’ve been married most of my life, and now suddenly I’m alone. I have to learn to live my life with nobody to talk to and make decisions with.”
Welton, a former nursing home administrator and auto shop co-owner, was at Courtland Gardens then. He moved there in September 2004 after spending time in several other assisted living facilities and nursing homes. During her time alone, Baker would write stories about her experience as a caregiver. In one chapter, she talked about how fulfilling her marriage was before Alzheimer’s, which she called “our nine-year honeymoon.”
Alzheimer’s takes its toll
Baker had her stories printed and called the booklet “Glimpses from a caregiver.” She gave it to about 50 caregivers and support groups in hopes of helping them cope. But even though she had spent years counseling people in stress, bereavement and caregiving through her private practice, she had a tough time dealing with a disease that was taking away her husband.
“I’m learning to make it happen but it’s hard,” she said late last year. “I watched him deteriorate into a child.”
At one point during his illness, Baker repeatedly banged her head against the wall because she could not deal with the stress. At times, she felt nobody cared about how she was doing. Sometimes, she got angry at her husband for forgetting things even though she knew that was the result of his disease.
It is common for caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients to feel stress, anger, denial and depression, said Pam Howard, director of development for the Connecticut chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Many lose their ability to cope and withdraw from their friends and relatives, she said.
“A lot of times the caregiver ends up passing away because of the stress,” she said. “It’s an incredible amount of stress.”
The daughter of a Baptist minister, Baker was always a devout Christian, so she turned to her faith to help her cope. She took a Bible study class and took comfort during her visits to Noroton Presbyterian Church in Darien. She had her share of health problems as well, including two strokes. But when she could, she went out with her girlfriends or played tennis.
Until recently, she found pleasure in washing Welton’s clothes, even though she could have had that done at the nursing home.
“It was peaceful for me,” she said. “I loved doing it because it was a way of sharing him with me. But then he stopped knowing me so I stopped.”
After 30 chapters and 37 pages, she also stopped writing her stories. It was too painful, she said.
Her children have said they knew she was having a tough time.
“The person isn’t there any more and yet they are still alive,” said Barbara Smith, 54, of Stamford, Baker’s oldest child. “So you have to stay vigilant to being married to them, you have to remember they are still your spouse even though the spouse is not there any more. She didn’t actually say that, but I could tell she was thinking it. She couldn’t enjoy him as a husband.”
David Baker, 50, of Bridgeport, said his mother kept a lot of her feelings to herself.
“I know it’s an empty, helpless feeling for her when there is nothing you can do and then it just drags on,” he said.
But Baker’s weekly visits to Room 203 at Courtland Gardens continued. The only obvious physical change in Welton was in his fingers, which had curled up because he also had arthritis.
“He’ll outlive me,” Baker said. “There is nothing wrong, good care, no stress. . . I promised him he will go first because he lost his first wife and he didn’t want to go through that again. . . . That won’t happen. But he won’t know.”
In her booklet, Baker wrote that Welton was her best friend, but she had already lost him to Alzheimer’s.
“Just recently I have realized that my best friend is already gone,” she wrote several months ago because he had stopped showing signs that he recognized her.
Still, when she got a call from the nursing home two weeks ago, she said she was shocked. Welton was dehydrated and had 10 to 14 days to live, the doctor told her. His living will prohibited any hydration or resuscitation from taking place. That was a Saturday, and Baker went to see him every day after. She would sit by his bed, talk to him, touch his face and kiss his forehead. Their framed wedding picture sat on his night stand.
After spending hours with him a week ago Thursday night, Baker went to another room to get a cup of tea and rest on a sofa. When a staff member found her a few minutes after midnight, Welton had died.
“As hard as it was to let him go, it was good to let him go,” she said just hours later. “I knew he was so long stuck in that body.”
In the days after his death, she picked a black pin-striped suit for him, a shirt with a lot of blue because he liked the color and a white tie to represent the color of an eagle, which was always meaningful to him because of his patriotism and war service. With just the two of them in the room, she said she could not help but hug and kiss his body.
“It’s almost like losing a baby at that point,” she said.
On Monday, a memorial service was held at First Presbyterian Church, where they met and got married.
“It seemed like 20 years had gone by and it had been that morning that I married him,” Baker said.